Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has long heralded Toronto FC as one of the league's greatest success stories.
Since TFC entered MLS in 2007, Garber has held up the Canadian club — with its loyal fan base and the amazing atmosphere it has created inside BMO Field for home games — as an example for other franchises and new teams set to enter the league.
But the Canadian club, owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), has fallen on hard times recently, having failed to qualify for the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
Already frustrated with poor results on the field, TFC supporters have become even more disillusioned, especially after team management recently announced a price increase for next year's season ticket packages.
Toronto fans let their displeasure be known this past Saturday during the club's final home game of the regular season. Supporter groups held silent protests, and some fans wore green shirts to symbolize what they feel is MLSE's greed. Others held up signs with negative slogans while a loud chorus of boos rang out throughout the stadium when a message flashed on the scoreboard reminding fans to renew their season tickets.
TFC fans helped teach U.S. to love soccer
Despite no playoff games to look forward to and a growing furor among its passionate supporters, Toronto FC is still "a model franchise," says Garber.
"I fully understand and sympathize with fans who are frustrated with lack of success, and I know the club cares about that," Garber told reporters Tuesday during an informal lunch meeting. "[But] this team is still, to me, and I hope it will remain, a model franchise."
Graber went on to laud MLSE as "one of the best sports organizations in the world" and said the league needs more ownership groups like it.
"MLS is where it is today because of the success of Toronto FC," said the commissioner. "I have absolutely no doubt that we would not be in the position we are — which is a respected and credible, growing professional sports league — without the success of TFC."
Garber also had glowing words of praise for Toronto FC fans and the passion they have shown for their team and the MLS product over the past four years.
"TFC has helped teach Americans how to be soccer fans," opined Garber. "Everything from how they travel down to away games, to how they cheer, to their passion for their club, to their commitment to the club.
"It's unfortunate that they haven't been rewarded with a very competitive team. If that happened, I think we would have a more perfect storm than we already have."
The fans' protest at Saturday's game did not go unnoticed by the commissioner.
"They've gone about [communicating their feelings] with passion; they've gone about it uniquely and creatively," Garber said. "Unique signs, sitting on their hands, wearing [green] shirts — that got everybody's attention. That got my attention. It certainly got the club's and ownership's attention, and they're sitting down and talking to them."
Indeed, Garber has been impressed with how MLSE has dealt with the crisis.
Disgruntled fans might boycott MLS Cup
MLSE wrote an open letter to its fans last week, apologizing for Toronto FC's failure to qualify for the playoffs and admitting that it "screwed up" in increasing the total number of games for 2011 season ticket packages.
The letter also explained that two games would be removed from the package to lower the costs and that MLSE chief operating officer Tom Anselmi would meet with TFC supporters in a series of six town hall meetings to address their complaints.
"I have to applaud them for their candour and their transparency," said Garber of the letter. "I think it's unique what Tom and the rest of his group has done the last couple of weeks, to go out and sit with their fans in open meetings."
The commissioner did, however, admit MLSE "made a mistake" when it announced the price increase while the team was mired in a losing slump and losing ground in the playoff race.
"In retrospect, raising ticket prices at the time they did was probably a decision they would do differently today," Garber said.
Despite MLSE's best intentions to repair the damage, there is legitimate concern that TFC fans might continue to protest the club's failures on the field and the season ticket price hikes by opting to not attend the MLS Cup, the league's championship game, scheduled for Nov. 21 at BMO Field.
Garber sees the game as an opportunity for Toronto fans to show how much they support MLS and help it attain a higher level of credibility within the international soccer community.
"I am hoping, and in many ways imploring, that we can continue to count on them to help take this league to a higher level," the commissioner said.
Garber believes TFC fans will show up at the game and said he isn't too concerned about BMO Field being half empty for the league's championship contest.
"It doesn't keep me up at night more than other issues, but I certainly would be thinking of it if I was [MLSE]," Garber said.